The brilliant English landscape painter John Constable, along with his contemporary J.M.W. Turner, are sometimes viewed as precursors to French Impressionism, and, by extension, the generations of modern painting that followed.
I think it’s even more interesting to consider the line from Constable through the outdoor paintings of Eugene Boudin, the Barbizon school, the Impressionists and their successors like the American Impressionists, and forward to the immediate, painterly works of best contemporary plein air painters.
Even more than in Constable’s finished studio paintings, which can be quite painterly (e.g. zoom way in on “The Hay Wain”), this line is most evident in his preparatory oil sketches which were painted out of doors — and of the local everyday landscape, not of exotic Mediterranean vistas or romanticized classical tableaux.
This practice, at the time, was as radical as the Impressionists’ adoption of similar plein air methods and their rejection of academic tradition some 50 years later.
Constable in his sketches not only sought the truth of nature, but the fleeting effects of light and shadow, the immediate here and now of the visual world. He captured these effects, “impressions”, if you will, in increasingly confident strokes of his brush as his career progressed. He also evidenced a mastery of nuanced color in these quickly realized studies, in which even seemingly plain surfaces and simple areas of greenery reveal multiple subtle hues.
All of these characteristics carry forward into what we now appreciate as among the best qualities of the French Impressionists and the painters that followed them into plein air painting, and their representation of the visual world as they perceived it directly.
Constable worked in oil outdoors on small pieces of canvas, board or prepared paper, which he pinned to the lid of his painting box, also anticipating the modern practice of pochade box painting. He later would frequently mount some of these sketches to more durable supports.
These were intended in his early years as practice and training, and as he became more accomplished, as preparatory studies for his studio landscapes.
I’ve see a few of Constable’s oil sketches before, and been impressed, but not as much as I was yesterday when I got to see Constable: Oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum, a traveling exhibition that is in its last day today, June 10, 2012, at the Princeton University Art Museum (it then moves to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN). The show includes graphite, watercolor and pen and wash drawings in addition to the oils.
The Victoria and Albert museum has limited resources online in association with the exhibit, but you can search the museum’s website for “Constable oil sketches” or “Constable Studies” to find more. Click on “View Details” to see the work’s dedicated page, from you can launch an enlargement.
If you’re willing to sign up for an account, with full address and phone information, the V&A museum will provide downloadable high-resolution images of many works in the collection. (I found it worth the trouble, just to get copies of Constable’s oil sketches for my own study.)
In addition, there are other resources on the web. The Yale Center for British Art (search for “Constable”,) has the greatest number I’ve found, in reasonably high resolution. The Google Art Project has a number of his sketches (not from this show) online in high resolution , and there are a few on the site of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
There is a book accompanying the exhibition, which I found well done and worthwhile, though the color is not true to the originals in that the images have been brightened, perhaps to bring out details or create an approximation of what the sketches may have looked like fresh from Constable’s brush, or maybe just to make the book more appealing, I don’t know.
I found the same effect in the reproductions on the V&A website reproductions (for Photoshop buffs, try moving your midrange output levels down to about 75% for a closer approximation of how they looked to me in the show).
There is also an iPad app (more info here), produced by ArtFinder, a third party in cooperation with the V&A, that provides a less expensive electronic version of the book. Though reproduced accurately (compared to the book, not the originals), I found the app problematic in that the enlargement feature doesn’t work on my new Retina Display version iPad. I don’t know if others are experiencing this. [Addendum: this has been addressed in a subsequent release and now works fine.] ArtFinder has a selection of works from the app (and the exhibition) online, though not high resolution.
I’ve listed some additional resources below, within which you can find reproductions of Constable’s oil sketches in particular.
Constable: Oil sketches from the Victoria and Albert Museum will be on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN from June 23 to September 30, 2012.
Seeing many of his oil sketches in a group, and from various points in Constable’s career, struck me as essentially a master class in plein air painting, by the artist who essentially pioneered the modern concept of the practice.
[Update, 2015: James Gurney has written a terrific post on Constable’s Outdoor Painting Materials.]